Saturday, May 12, 2012

Thoughts on The Anger of Achilles

Reading The Iliad is always an interesting experience.  That's why I've been on a Homeric marathon in recent months, and why I'm finishing it with translations rather than works inspired by the original tales.  Robert Graves provides an interesting and illuminating essay at the start of The Anger of Achilles that puts a lot of things into perspective, not the least being how exactly the original text came into being, and why what most people are familiar with is probably more of a detriment to reading it today than anything.

It's funny that classical learning used to mean that you learned languages and read things in their original versions, whereas today you're lucky just to care enough about classic works to read them in any translations.  It may be a mark of the education system or modern attention spans; on the former the bigger the push toward universal education may have actually pressed for standards that don't match what should actually be offered, while the latter is a constant refrain, especially with the flood of technology that allows people to be doing almost everything except what they're actually doing.

The Iliad in its basic story is almost exactly the opposite of what anyone will think about today as a complete story.  Most people will assume that it's the story of the Trojan War, when it's actually about very specific circumstances that don't necessary cover the beginning or conclusion of the conflict, instead focusing on the human perspectives that dictate the course of events, and the divine interventions that help shape it, centered mostly on the actions of Achilles, as he removes himself from the battlefield and is eventually persuaded back onto it.

There is a litany of death, an almost ritualistic parade of killing from one major warrior to the next, that seems to make up the majority of the text, which even in Graves' translation cannot be avoided, as well as language that reflects a classical lineage, which might almost be considered taken straight from a play, which is not so surprising because it comes from an oral history, and so basically was a play in its original incarnations.  Anyone who has ever wondered about the existence of Homer may want to pay close attention to the essay I've previously referenced; although Graves does not make it explicit he might as well have solved the mystery once and for all, and it's so obvious that of course very people have apparently considered it.  Homer is simply a guy who inherited this thing, and is probably the one who put it in its best possible shape, and then his disciples put it in writing, codified it, so to speak, and then, as Graves suspects, there were a few modifications later, and so on.

Bottom line is, Homer didn't start it, and he didn't finish it, but without him, we probably wouldn't know the story today, at least not in this specific form.  He's the reason it's the way it is, and is not a strict chronicle, but rather a lens into that world, how gods and men interacted.

Graves ditches, for the most part, the verse translation you'll probably think of off the bat, only occasionally resurrecting it to express poetic thoughts, and is for the most part a pretty refreshing take, very nearly bringing it kicking and screaming into a more familiar context.  It is still unmistakably the same shape and form as the story people have been reading for thousands of years, and so anyone reluctant to read it before will probably experience the same frustrations, but it's a lucid text for those already interested, a worthy effort to clear the cobwebs without disturbing the furniture.  It may become, for those who want to read The Iliad, the first destination along the path of exploring Homer's enduring legacy, even if there remains plenty of competition.

The story is a musty marvel, and remains fascinating no matter if you know Diomedes from Hector, which side they fought on, and how they compare to Achilles, whether any of them is truly worth respecting, and if you believe in the concept of gods as mythology or reality, or simply allegory.  There's a great deal to learn from reading it, and that's why it continues to endure, and why people like Robert Graves keep trying to make it newly relevant.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...